Professor John Henry Merryman’s legacy lives on in both art and the law
Stanford Law Professor John Henry Merryman, who died in 2015 at the age of 95, was a much-loved scholar and a man of diverse gifts. Merryman pioneered the legal specialty of international cultural property law, and he helped to expand Stanford’s world-class outdoor sculpture collection.
One of the largest sculptures on campus, Mark di Suvero’s Sieve of Eratosthenes (1999), was dedicated to him for his 80th birthday. The Sieve of the title is an ancient algorithm to find prime numbers, an indirect tribute to Merryman’s singularity.
“John Merryman was a giant in several fields — comparative law and the field he helped create, art and the law,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and dean of Stanford Law School, upon Merryman’s death in August 2015. “He taught his last class, Stolen Art, only a couple months [before his death], and helped launch the careers of many of our graduates who work at the intersection of the arts and the law.”
Merryman joined the law school in 1953. He debuted “Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts,” the first course of its kind, in 1971, team-teaching with his friend and campus neighbor, the late Art History Professor Albert Elsen. The two delved into questions of tax, copyright, contracts, regulation, cultural property, ethics and more. Merryman’s thinking was rooted in the deep knowledge he had already accumulated as a comparative law scholar of international standing.
“That art law is today recognized internationally as being essential to every country interested in protecting its cultural patrimony, by every American art museum as vital to the proper conduct of its trustees and by all artists as protecting their rights, is due in large measure to the publications and teachings of John Henry Merryman,” Elsen wrote in 1987 in the Stanford Law Review.
In 2014, Stanford moved Sieve of Eratosthenes to its current location on Escondido Mall, between student residences and the Arrillaga Dining Commons. There, undergraduates hurrying to and from class can appreciate from all angles di Suvero’s characteristic synthesis of Cubist structure and Abstract Expressionist gesture, of intellectual rigor and deep emotion, and perhaps be inspired to forge singular lifepaths of their own.